Avs about to make history or become it

Originally Published: April 21, 2004
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- Colorado Avalanche winger Dan Hinote was talking on Tuesday about how two other teams have proven it's possible to overcome a 3-0 deficit and win a Stanley Cup playoff series.

But the last time it happened, someone rudely pointed out (OK, it was me), Hinote wasn't even born yet.

"That's true, but it doesn't make it impossible," said the fiery Hinote. "We have the kind of character and team in here to do it. We sat in here this morning and talked about it. It's a good way to put ourselves in the history books."

For the record, those teams were the 1942 Maple Leafs and the 1975 Islanders. And Hinote, the one-time West Point cadet, was born in the hockey hotbed of Leesburg, Fla., 1977.

The Avalanche, winless against the Sharks in the Western Conference semifinals going into Game 4 tonight, had an optional workout after the team meeting Tuesday. Most of the big names -- including Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Adam Foote and the injured Rob Blake (who won't play tonight because of an, ahem, "upper body injury") -- didn't skate.

"We've had four-game stretches this season where we've won them all, and I don't see why we wouldn't be able to do it again," said winger Alex Tanguay.

The pressure is white-hot, the stakes high, and the precedents don't provide much hope as the Avalanche attempt to solve the stingy Kazakhstani, Evgeni Nabokov; penetrate San Jose's deep defense; and at least counter the Sharks' speed.

With so much uncertainty about the NHL's future economic landscape looming, with Forsberg maneuvering to return to Sweden for at least next season, and with coach Tony Granato's job likely in jeopardy, an ignominious loss in this series could lead to sweeping changes through a franchise that on balance has been hugely successful since its arrival in Denver nine years ago.

"I've said this from day one, and I'll still say it today," Granato said. "Our expectations are to win the Stanley Cup. We have 12 wins we have to get to accomplish that. Obviously, right now we're in a tough position. Do I still believe we can do it? Of course I do. Adding pressure? No. I'm going to approach it the same way I approach every other game."

Last year's first-round flop against the Minnesota Wild could be labeled an aberration. But if, as seems certain, it is coupled with a second-round exit against San Jose this time around, the rationalizations -- including the fact that the Sharks are no slouches -- will ring hollow.

The run among the elite will be over, and that will be confirmed even before the likely re-ordering of the game's economic and competitive structures.

If what seems to be inevitable becomes reality, Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix -- who generally is steadfast that he has provided any coach with the personnel to at least make a deep run at a championship, if not win it -- will be regretting his departure from his "recipe" last summer.

For years, he refrained from pursuing other franchise's unrestricted free agents in the summers, instead making deadline deals for big names and then either attempting to re-sign them (e.g., Blake, Ray Bourque) or bidding them adieu (Theo Fleury).

Yet presented with an invitation to make a run at the two-man tag team of buddies Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, and being able to close the deal at bargain prices, he went ahead.

It hasn't worked out.

In fact, it has been a disaster, and adjustments in the wake of the signings are destined to go down as a treadmill of desperation. Let's make this clear: That's not second-guessing the signings. Any GM with a brain and supportive ownership would have done the same thing, given the chance, and the reaction both around the league and in Denver was that Lacroix had pulled off another coup.

We all thought that, didn't we? Even through the exhibition season and into October, it seemed that the Selanne-Sakic-Kariya line could be magic.

But Selanne, while a good guy who kept trying, doesn't have it anymore.

Even in his limited stretches of being healthy enough to play, Kariya looked mysteriously disinterested.

Lacroix's other lower-profile offseason moves, adding Karlis Skrastins and Andrei Nikolishin, and his October pickup of Steve Konowalchuk in the opening moments of the Washington Capitals' fire sale, were savvy changes. But when the Avalanche stumbled in late February, Lacroix couldn't resist tinkering as the deadline approached. The funny thing is, the only deal that seems obviously shaky on its own -- Derek Morris and University of Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard's rights to Phoenix for Chris Gratton and Ossi Vaananen -- is suspect primarily because: a) the Avalanche gave up Chris Drury to get Morris, and, b) Ballard will turn out to be a stud. Beyond that, none of the dealing that added seven players in the final three weeks before the trading deadline has had horrible results.

Collectively, though, the deals have contributed to chemistry problems. This can seem silly in this era of pro sports, but how about the fact that when you walk through the halls of the Avalanche practice facility, so many of the smiling faces in Colorado uniforms in recent seasons of triumph are gone? It underscores the amazing instability for an otherwise successful franchise that has staked so much on retaining a small core.

Granato's inexperience behind the bench shouldn't have been a severe handicap, because he has coached this team the way we all -- including Lacroix -- should have expected from the moment he was elevated. He hasn't been clueless, as some want you to believe. He has coached with a recent player's touch, but that was supposed to be what everyone coveted and wanted, and the result would be a content group of enviable individual talent coming together.

That hasn't happened.

We're writing this as if the Avalanche have virtually no chance of winning this series, aren't we?

History says they don't.

Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming" and of the upcoming "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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